Network operators are fighting hard to maintain network stability in the face of the multiple threats posed by high levels of load-shedding, battery theft and the continuous vandalism of network infrastructure.

This is according to Ernest Paul, MTN SA GM: network operations, who says: “Although the vandals and thieves have a direct impact on network availability and stability, load-shedding and load reduction, which has increased over the past five years, has emerged as the biggest contributor to our challenges.”

The power outages also continue to play into the hands of criminals and criminal syndicates, as they find it easier to access the infrastructure under the cover of darkness, he adds.

Paul says new rounds of load-shedding place network availability under increased strain as the battery back-up system generally takes 12 to 18 hours to recharge, while batteries generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category. “Constant outages have a direct impact on the performance of the batteries, while theft of the batteries themselves means replacements need to be installed,” he explains.

“Battery autonomy therefore remains one of the biggest pillars of resilience followed by the infrastructure security to protect the batteries and other equipment that form part of our network infrastructure,” he says.

The latest data shows that the total incidents of theft and vandalism of MTN infrastructure amounted to 378 in May, up from 312 in April. Paul says the most significant improvement has occurred in the reduction in battery theft, which is down to 52 incidents in May this year compared with as many as 78 incidents in May 2020. However, of more concern, is that copper theft is on the rise – measuring 94 incidents in May up from 63 incidents a year ago.

A notable surge in total incidents has occurred in the Eastern Cape, which measured 76 in May, compared with only 32 this time last year. Limpopo has registered the highest number of incidents of 83 in May, and this is up significantly from the 43 incidents of a year ago. At the same time, this is the first time South Africa has experienced this level of load-shedding in June compared to any other year.

To mitigate the risks, MTN, has embarked on a number of initiatives to increase network resilience.

Increased security and vigilance have reduced the theft and vandalism of network equipment and infrastructure during the early part of 2021 in regions like Gauteng and Tshwane, which have traditionally been the hardest hit areas. However, this has been countered by increases in other regions, higher incidents of perimeter breaches and copper cable theft.

The rollout of batteries to mitigate power outages risks which results in network availability impact remains one of MTN’s aggressive rollout plans.

“In parallel to that we are also rolling out battery safes, as well as enhanced security access to our sites to reduce theft through vandalism. These activities started late last year, and we are continuing aggressively this year. It is a long process due to logistics and other technical challenges like activation of tracking devices on batteries,” says Paul. “We have however seen a significant improvement so far and we have found ourselves in a better position during the current rounds of load-shedding.”

MTN has also sourced additional generators to support existing infrastructure and site output is being managed to further enhance efficiencies. Regional “war rooms” have been established to ensure an hour-by-hour account of systems to keep customers connected.

While enhanced high-tech and on-the-ground security measures are beginning to make life harder for criminals hoping to get away with battery theft, cable theft and vandalism at cell tower base stations, Paul says the industry is not out of the woods.

“Network coverage is lost if we do not have batteries, and because cases of vandalism, cable theft and diesel theft remain high, we cannot let our guard down at all. We call on the public to remain vigilant and join us in the fight by reporting all suspicious activity,” says Paul.

People are urged to report cellphone tower battery theft and vandalism through the following channels:

* Bidvest Protea Coin Hotline – Call 086 101 1721

* @MTNza Fraud Line – Call 083 123 7867

* Or email anonymous@tipoffs.comĀ